About three months on from the publication of the Honours List in June an invitation arrives in the post. It's just about the best "boss, I want to take the day off work because..." you could hope for. The Head of State, HRH Queen Elizabeth II, wants you to pop round to her place so you can be given a medal. I'm sure there are employers who would say "no" to that one, but you really wouldn't want to work for them if you could avoid it. I am finally sure from the paperwork that when you get the gong it's called an Investiture: I am very much a fish out of water here so the language is all a bit alien.
You get to take three guests with you. I make my choices and so we are attending as a quartet of people who have volunteered with some of the UK's most prolific and enduring bi projects.
9am on the big day and I and my three guests are pulling on posh frocks and the like. It's not far from where we've stayed the night to Buckingham Palace but there's unanimity on "in these shoes, we're getting a taxi".
To the Palace and we arrive early so there is time for some queueing in the grounds, being photographed through the gates by tourists. This is followed by being guided around the building and after a short while separated, recipients from their guests. The guests - being mostly in threes - can chat amongst their groups or with one another, while we recipients are led to a room where we mill about together for about an hour - so lots of respectful conversation with people you'd probably not otherwise meet who you know are bloody good at whatever it is they do. A couple of them I know faintly from their equalities work or from the occassional 10 Downing Street LGBT receptions.
There are about 83 of us in attendance, and about two dozen people guiding us around the building, checking who is there and so on. One with exquisite politeness takes me to one side: the medals are in female and male versions, and we wanted to make sure which you would prefer, very sorry to disturb you and ask. An answer is given and from that point on there is never so much as a flicker of an eyebrow.
The honours come in descending order of rank so I get a while of waiting while the Knights and what have you are taken first. A CCTV feed lets you watch the ceremony in progress - and there are my guests in the front row! Hell, they look so fine. And then my name is called and I am off to the final queue.
Presentation of each honour is made in female first then male, and within each alphabetical order, so being a Yockney I conveniently came either at the end of the women or between the two big gender blocs depending how you choose to see it. It's not often having a name at the end of the list works out to my advantage!
Whatever you think of the monarchy as a thing, it is amazing what a fine job of her role here the Princess Royal makes. Each one of us, whether the highest ranking or the last in the line, get a very similar amount of time in conversation, and I gather afterwards that the ones higher up the queue who have ever received another honour from here are greeted with how good it is to see them again. I know she must be very well briefed but it is flawless and consistent.
Everyone wants to know the conversation you get: the Princess Royal asks about where I live and reflects that on matters of gender and sexuality diversity it must be difficult to know quite when and where to be out. I think herein is kind of an acknowledgement of the struggle I had back in the spring, working out what to put when it asked about things like gender and title, as well as the wider world. I answer that the thing is that while it can be hard to be out, everyone who is makes the closet door that little bit wider open for the person behind them. And my time is up and my medal is on my chest and I have shaken a Princess' hand.
In the structure of the presentation you bow or curtsey, go forward to receive your honour and brief talk, walk backward, curtsey or bow again and move on. To blend things as best as I can, I curtsey at the start and bow at the end. Again: no flicker of judgement or what have you, just the same warm congratulation from the team keeping the wheels turning as they give every other recipient. The monarchy is ancient, the honour I'm receiving some hundred years old, but the people making the wheels turn are thoroughly modern.
An orchestra plays as the presentations take place - as I took my seat after the presentation I realised we were being treated to an arrangement of a David Bowie song. Deliciously appropriate. (As I was receiving the award I'm told it was Nobody Does It Better. I have no idea, I was far too lost in worrying about falling over as I curtseyed or what have you).
And it was over and outside for photos and off for a huge slap-up meal and strawberry cider and, at last, taking your posh shoes off and being able to walk more easily!
The Honour Thing
It's a big deal, and one I find a bit weird: I have to tell myself now and then during introductions to add "MBE" to who I am. I didn't start volunteering for glory (hell if I had I'd've picked a different field!) but because I'd come out as bi and trans and tried to find support and social spaces, but the services and spaces I found were so lacking that I felt the only way they would happen would be if I learned the skills and got stuck in.
But I have been volunteering, for various bi causes, for over 20 years - I started in about 1992 depending on quite where you draw the line. Since 1995 there's been at least something every month and from 1996 or so something every week, barring hospital levels of health problems like having to lie down for a month after four charmers queerbashed me. Some of the projects have been fleeting, others carry on for years: frontline support for people coming out as bi at BiPhoria, for example.
People ask me about the monarchy and the empire aspects. There are those who turn down their gongs and the press is busy this week with a story of how John Lennon sent his back. I'm not wild about either the monarchy as a system or the empire as, well, my heritage is not very empire. But the bottom line for me is: this is the current Head of State of the country I choose to live in, and this is the system that same country uses for recognising the work in the community of its citizens. It is both an Honour and actually an honour, and a world away from the world I grew up in that such a symbol of the establishment is recognising someone genderqueer championing bi people's liberty and equality.
So: it was an amazing day out, and I shall probably spend the next fortnight gazing into the middle distance and going "wow" as I zone out for a moment. A double first, so to speak, that I hope to see followed up with seconds and thirds quite soon.
Oh: and here are some photos!